MRAVICI, Bosnia (Reuters) – Bosnian police and hundreds of veterans of the country’s 1990s war were locked in a tense standoff on Saturday on the country’s main highway as the protesters demanded fairer distribution of government benefits.
Special police forces in full combat gear pushed back the protesters lining up at the main north-to-south road, angry after the police used force to disperse another group in the northern town of Tuzla in the early hours of Saturday.
Since Wednesday, Bosniak and Croat war veterans have been blocking the main junctions connecting cities in Bosnia’s autonomous Bosniak-Croat Federation, including the capital Sarajevo, demanding benefits for unemployed former soldiers and a unified register of all veterans.
The protesters, who spent several nights outdoors in freezing temperatures blocking traffic, want government to cut funding for about 1,600 veterans’ associations.
They say they do not trust the associations to hand out benefits equitably and they want the government to make payments directly to individuals.
Government officials say they cannot give in to their demands because of budget restraints. They have invited the veterans’ representatives to come and talk about their requests but the protesters refused.
During the dawn police action in Tuzla, eight protesters were briefly detained and two slightly injured.
But new groups of protesters were popping up in different parts of the country on Saturday, including at several places in central Bosnia and in the south, at a border crossing with Croatia.
The regional government has been coping with the problem of veterans’ payments for years, after ruling parties had pushed through parliament a generous law on benefits as a pre-election sweetener which was later withdrawn.
Nobody knows how many former soldiers are eligible for benefits, after many people falsely declared themselves to be veterans. That is why protesters insist on a unified register.
(Reporting by Dado Ruvic, writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Stephen Powell)